By Howard Lee
If I had my pick, the most heart-warming story to emerge from Joseph Schooling’s epic win at the Rio Olympics would not be how he snatched the gold medal from his idol Michael Phelps, but how his parents raised him well for him to achieve what he has today.
Stories have been pouring in about how May and Colin have sacrificed time, money and pretty much their whole lives in an attempt for their only son to fulfil his dream.
May and Colin deserve the rightful place of honour, as they have done what most of us parents would never imagine doing – quite literally, take a plunge with their child into the deep end. If we ever need a role model for chasing our dreams, I think it is time we put to rest Lee Kuan Yew and his rainbow, and raise our heads to May and Colin Schooling.
The Schoolings broke the mold for what we have gotten used to seeing as part of the life of our children: We send them to school, hope (some even make sure) that they do well enough to excel in their grades, and all other pursuits become secondary. For many high-aspiration parents, sports and other co-curricular activities become the means to get to a better school, where their children are once again put to the academic grindstone.
Joseph’s success has underpinned one important but sad fact about how we educate our children: Parents play a pivotal role in how our children succeed in life, and a lot of what we believe to be success rub off on them.
The Schoolings were different, and deserve our admiration, because they saw success in a different way, through the eyes of their child.
But can we blame parents for wanting the best for their children, particularly if that best is couched in “safe and sure” (in quotation marks because it can hardly be true today) terms of academic success? As parents, we want the best for them, and a good education is the best possible legacy we can bestow.
The Schoolings’ victory would undoubtedly lead to calls for parents to dream big, take the plunge, go against the flow, all for a shot at the top place on the podium.
For what purpose? So that we can see another gold medal from Singapore? So that we can put our hands to our heart and sing proudly as our flag soars? So that our investment in sports can be deemed worthwhile?
What are we asking of parents? How selfish can we be?
Without a doubt, Joseph could have swum under any flag, but he chose our Red and White. We need to realise that we have no claim over him, just as any call for parents to be like the Schoolings is trivial. If we want more Josephs to fly our state colours, we need to ask what the state is willing to do to make it easier for parents to take that plunge.
Without doubt, Singapore has sunk a sizeable amount of money into sports excellence, but has it been well used? We offer training grants and good coaches, but have we really cultivated a mindset where sports is seen by our children and their parents as a viable career and future?
Currently, the Ministry of Education has implements a Junior Sports Academy (JSA) programme and this would really be the best opportunity to pick out which of our young ones have potential – Joseph Schooling was hitting the pool for practice since he was eight years old. However, MOE said that “the programme is not an effort to groom elite national athletes from young”. Why? Would it not make sense to prepare talents and parents early? Or are we unable to spot talent at such a young age?
Even if we do, we can expect drop-outs, and for those who keep at it, not all will be able to achieve their dreams. That is perfectly fine, but have we inculcated in our children a “dare to fail” spirit, or just a “win or lose” mindset? What can we offer to those who try their best at something they love, rather than reward them only when they have performed? Is a paltry training grant and NS deferment the best that we can do as a nation? Can we give greater assurance to athletes and their parents that doing the best to fly our colours would be honoured just as much?
Before the end of today, we would have heard all the accolades in Parliament praising the Schoolings. If we should ever hear praises for our system of sporting excellence, we need to take a step back and ask each and every Parliamentarian, as well as ourselves: Have we really done it right by the Schoolings and, more importantly, Singaporean kids who dare to dream like Joseph?
This goes beyond wanting to be a nation of sporting excellence. We are great not because we have arrived, but because we have put our all into the journey, as the Schoolings have. We need to bear true testament to the often-cited mantra that there is a path of success for everyone. Our first Olympic gold is an excellent opportunity for us to think a bit deeply about this, rather than pile it on the athletes and parents to dream on their own.